Topless in Ilium
by Wolcott Gibbs

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

The New Yorker, 15 August 1936

collected in —

More in Sorrow May 2009

Helen of Troy & the all-too-modern style

"Topless in Ilium" is only a tiny short story, a mite of literary satire by Wolcott Gibbs; but it sparked my re-boarding a substantial train of thought.

Gibbs wrote a number of short parodies — Parodies Regained — caricaturing some famous literary styles: from his famous profile of Time magazine, to Calvin Coolidge as humorist, to Ernest Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis and others. "Topless in Ilium", dealing with Aldous Huxley, is among the shortest of these, but it's suitable for a Trojan glint since its title, if not precisely Classical, is surely Antique. I am sorry to report that it does not put forward those fabulous Hellenic breastworks which so pointedly mesmerized Menelaus.

Wolcott Gibbs provides a little abstract for "Topless in Ilium":

Mr. Aldous Huxley Imagines a Tender Passage Between Helen and Paris in the Manner of Antic Hay, Point Counter Point, and Eyeless in Gaza.

The story really is too short to quote from, but I will say that Gibbs does discuss faces and emotions. Here is a benchmark from an intermediate age, but withal fronting a more heroic outlook than Aldous Huxley's or ours:

[Faust's study. Enter Helen again, passing over between two cupids.]


Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.  [Kisses her.]
Christopher Marlowe
Doctor Faustus, 1327-1330
  (or 5.87-90, or 18.98-101, etc.)
The Works of Christopher Marlowe

And the train of thought I mentioned earlier? The contrast between the implied Antique and Classical Greek outlooks on the one hand, and Gibbs' parody of Aldous Huxley's morass of modernity on the other, is striking. The dawn and the nadir of our culture, we may be tempted to conclude, the top and the bottom.

The ceiling was that of a cellar, so heavy and low that people stooped when crossing the room, as if the weight of the vaulting rested on their shoulders. The circular booths of dark red leather were built into walls of stone that looked eaten by age and dampness. There were no windows, only patches of blue light shooting from dents in the masonry, the dead blue light proper for use in blackouts. The place was entered by way of narrow steps that led down, as if descending deep under the ground. This was the most expensive barroom in New York and it was built on the roof of a skyscraper.

Ayn Rand
"The Top and the Bottom"
Atlas Shrugged  (1957)

Ah, yes: whose the Top? And why the Bottom? If we don't understand the one, we never can manage the other. "Topless in Ilium" is a surprisingly revealing mite of a story, for the reflective.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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